Tag Archive for McKay Hilary

Summer Reading List

I’m not going to be blogging in August. It’s my month to take stock, recharge, and just READ. So, in case you’re wondering which books to pack/download for your children or take out the library for the summer reading challenge (see here), then here are a few suggestions.

i want my hat backoliver and patchwinnie at the seasidekatie mcginty

I recently re-discovered I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. This is a modern classic and as close to picture book perfection as you can get. A bear is looking for his hat and asks a variety of creatures if they have seen it. It’s a simple concept expertly executed, with fabulous dry wit and wonderful facial expressions – the text and pictures complement each other flawlessly. It is fun to do different voices for different characters and good for all ages to discuss what happened to the rabbit and why! Oliver and Patch by Claire Freedman and Kate Hindley is a beautiful story about moving to a new place. Summer can be a transition time for lots of children, and it’s good to read a reassuring story about making new friends and settling into a new place. Phenomenal vocabulary, exquisite illustrations – it also shows the fun you can have in a city. For something more summery try Winnie the Witch at the Seaside by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul. Much loved by children everywhere, this episode takes Winnie to the beach – although will Wilbur the cat stay dry? A good story, well told, with Korky’s distinctive style of illustrations. If you don’t want to rely on old favourites, this summer watch out for Katie McGinty Wants a Pet by debut author Jenna Harrington, illustrated by Finn Simpson, publishing 13th August. Katie wants a very different kind of pet (bet you can guess from the cover!). Although she may end up with slightly more than she bargained for – the writing style is fun and quirky – and captures a small child wonderfully – ‘She wanted it more than Millie Phillips wanted to be able to stand on her head.’

oliver and the seawigsclever pollylottie liptonthe gingerbread star ted rules the worldClaude Lights

My newly independent reading choices are a mixture of old and new too. Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre is a gem of a book, which takes the reader on a seafaring voyage unlike any other. The illustrations are sensational, look out particularly for Iris the mermaid. A classic, which has just been reissued and is well worth a read is Clever Polly and the Wolf by Catherine Storr. With 13 separate stories this is a good starter read. Each story is a play on ‘wolf fairy tales’, but magically don’t seem dated at all – and Clever Polly is remarkably likeable. If you’re doing any museum visiting this summer, or just looking to solve some riddles, a great read is the new Lottie Lipton series by Dan Metcalf, released in conjunction with the British Museum. These are well written little mysteries for growing readers but they have real riddles in them, and activities at the end. I’d love to read one whilst in the British Museum to see if I could follow the trail too. A must for young historians. For new or struggling readers I’m also heartily in favour of the Little Gem series from Barrington Stoke. There are numerous titles by fabulous authors in this list, but recent releases include The Gingerbread Star by Anne Fine, illustrated by Vicki Gausden and Ted Rules the World by Frank Cottrell Boyce, illustrated by Chris Riddell and Cate James. The Gingerbread Star retains the quality of Anne Fine’s longer work, and tells a glorious story of a worm who wishes she was a gloworm (so she can read in bed after lights out). She perseveres yet retains her sense of right and wrong throughout her adventure. Beautifully illustrated too – worms have never been so attractive. Ted Rules the World by high calibre writer Cottrell Boyce also retains the writer’s style – his sense of humour and mischievousness shine through in this hilarious story about a boy whose opinions on politics have a direct line to the prime minister. Far from marking him out as special though, Ted finds that the root cause is rather more uninspiring. It’s extremely funny. This agegroup also adore the Claude series by Alex T Smith, and on the 1st August, the new title is published, Claude: Lights! Camera! Action!. As zany as ever, Claude and Sir Bobblesock discover a film set and when the two lead actors are injured, they are asked to step in. The jokes hit on all levels – both children and adults. And that’s not all…this summer is momentous for the release of the very last Horrid Henry book by Francesca Simon: Horrid Henry’s Cannibal Curse. Although I’ve yet to see a copy of this and hate to review books I haven’t read I’m told it has an answer to the perpetual parental groan that Henry is too horrid…as Henry himself starts to read an interesting book about a girl called Evil Evie…

elspeth hart dara palmerrooftoppersmurder most unladylike
Eight to 13 year olds have a huge choice for their summer reads in this golden age of children’s literature. Firstly, I’d recommend Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs by Sarah Forbes, illustrated by James Brown. The second in the series comes out in September, so wisely use the summer to read the first. It tells the tale of orphan Elspeth, working as a servant in the Pandora Pants School for Show-Offs, sweeping up mouse-droppings, and dodging the horrid students, until one day she realises why she’s there, and how she can escape. Comic fun and a school setting with a feisty heroine. Another show off is the eleven year old main character in Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah. This is a fantastic story about a young adopted girl who desperately wants to be an actress. The story highlights how, through drama, she becomes more aware of herself and her relationship with her friends and family. Dealing with so many issues, such as adoption, diversity “I looked like a chocolate bunny in a room full of snowmen”, Dara’s voice is fresh, funny, and heartfelt. The massively annotated pages (doodles and patterns) entice the reader, as well as Dara’s imagined film script running parallel to her normal life, but Emma Shevah also deals cleverly with sensitive issues. Both an enjoyable read and an enlightening one (about adoption and different cultures). If your child hasn’t yet read Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, then buy it before her new book comes out in September. Rooftoppers tells the story of Sophie’s search for her mother across the roof tops in Paris. Katherine’s gift for storytelling knows no bounds – her writing is exemplary – stylish, fresh, original, and imaginative. It’s a perfect book and I implore you read it, instilling virtues such as love and courage and morality and seeking for the possibles in life. Its timelessness and third person narrative set it apart from other titles for this age group and it is a deserving winner of the Waterstones Children’s and Blue Peter Book awards. For series fans, I would recommend the Wells and Wong Mystery series by Robin Stevens. The first in the series, called Murder Most Unladylike, tells the story of Daisy and Hazel who set up a detective agency at their boarding school to look for missing ties etc, but then discover the body of the Science Mistress lying in the gym, and suddenly have a real mystery to solve. It is Agatha Christie for 9 year olds and over. Robin Stevens captures the innocence and yet vivaciousness of the two girls with all their insecurities and complexities. The book is set in the 1930’s but feels fairly timeless. It’s fun, imaginative, and brilliant for those who love mysteries and school stories. (so most children!). Three in the series have been published so far – an addictive set to devour on the beach, or staring at the rain…once you’ve read one, you’ll want to read them all.

boy in the towerthe executioners daughterbinny for shortphoenix

For slightly older readers, a haunting but utterly absorbing book for those wishing to ignore their family whilst on holiday is Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen. A modern day Triffids, Ade lives with his mum in a tower block, but one day the other buildings start to fall down. Before long the Bluchers have overtaken the landscape – plants that feed on metal and concrete, and give off deadly spores. Suddenly Ade and his mother are trapped. Ade has to learn to survive, figure out why his tower hasn’t collapsed and help his mother through the situation. It’s a tense, exhilarating read with memorable characters. Other stories for those slightly older are The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff– a historical tale, set in the Tower of London, and focussing on the ‘basket girl’, – the child who catches the beheaded heads in her basket. Never a dull moment in Tudor times – as the tale turns supernatural too. Salter, the loveable boy protagonist, is a sparkling creation. The sequel River Daughter, came out earlier this year. Binny for Short by Hilary McKay swings back to modernity, with a coming-of-age tale of friendship that deals with loss, relocation, family dynamics and special needs all in a highly readable, compelling summertime story. Binny is an all-rounded character, with frustration, humour, sympathy and a fantastic sense of childhood adventure. A great read from a prolific author who can clearly observe and articulate what people are really like. The sequel, Binny in Secret, came out in June. For those approaching teens, Phoenix by SF Said is my final pick. It’s something completely different – science fiction superbly written by Said, and ethereally illustrated by Dave McKean. It’s a powerfully ambitious tale of age-old war between Humans and Aliens. Lucky thinks he is an ordinary human boy, but once he discovers his extraordinary power realises that he must harness it to save the galaxy, even if it comes at huge personal cost. Bixa, the alien girl who gets mixed up in his story, is one of the most awe-inspiring characters in children’s fiction: fierce, magnetic and witty. I would definitely choose to dress up as Bixa on World Book Day if I were younger. This book is quite unlike any other in its age range – an epic with clear language, scintillating scenes and huge themes of power and myth, the universe and love, war and sacrifice. It will stay with you long after the summer fades.

Lastly, if you haven’t yet worked through my books of the week from this year, my most memorable reads were Stonebird by Mike Revell, The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone, The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday and In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll.

 

 

National Share a Story Month: Dragons

May is National Share-a-Story Month and the 2015 theme is dragons. To celebrate, I’m using the Tuesday Top Ten Bloggers’ Meme created by The Broke and the Bookish writers to list my top ten dragon picture books. In no particular order:

Doughnuts for a Dragon

Doughnuts for a Dragon by Adam and Charlotte Guillain, illustrated by Lee Wildish
I love that dragon books tend to have protagonists called George, seeing as they are following the old legends of George and the Dragon. This George decides to go in search of a dragon. To do this he builds himself a time machine and packs lots of snacks, including doughnuts. On his way to meet the dragon he bumps into all sorts of strange and horrid creatures, such as a witch, and an ogre, but pacifies them all with tasty treats. When he finally meets the dragon, he discovers that it’s not as ferocious as he thought, and together with a lonely princess they feast on doughnuts. The text rhymes well, and the illustrations are fantastically fun – right from the opening pages in George’s bedroom with its puns on modern culture, and the characters depicted cheerfully and colourfully. The language is great, from the very incidental time machine, to the whooshing, click clacking and squeaking. There are others in the series, including Pizza for Pirates, Spaghetti with the Yeti, and my personal favourite, Marshmallows for Martians. You can purchase it here or see the Amazon sidebar.

george and the dragon

George and the Dragon by Chris Wormell
Admitting a slight bias here, as Chris Wormell kindly opened my school library and did some amazing illustrations for our walls, but I loved this book before I met him. It’s a subversive take on the typical legend, and shows great humour. George here is a mouse, not a knight, although this is only revealed halfway through the story. Before this, we have magnificent illustrations and fierce text on how powerful and mighty the dragon is, although he has a secret. He is scared of mice. When our unknowing hero George moves into the cave next door to the dragon, he inadvertently rescues the princess, and is rewarded with a fine meal and a new home. The illustrations are dramatic and vivid, and drawn to incredible detail. Chris Wormell is the illustrator of the cover for the 2014 Samuel Johnson winner H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald– his illustrations are truly a cut above. You can purchase it here or see the Amazon sidebar.

the trouble with dragons
The Trouble With Dragons by Debi Gliori

A much-loved and re-read text, this is a warning about our environment and how we treat the world, told simply, elegantly and cleverly in a dragon tale. The dragons use up all the resources on earth by building houses, taking up space, eating all the food, leaving a mess, and blowing hot air which melts the snow and turns the ice to water. The rest of the animals ask the dragons to think about what they are doing before it is only dragons left on the planet, to reduce their hot air, to reuse and recycle. The end stanza has a telling tone:
“So – if you know a Dragon (and most of us do)
ask it if it thinks that this story is true.
For if we can’t see that our stories are linked
then sadly, like Dragons, we’ll soon be extinct.”
It’s not subtle, and it’s not a picture book for pre-schoolers, but occasionally it’s good to hear to get a message across directly. You can purchase it here or see the Amazon sidebar.

zog

Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
I can’t not feature Zog in my list – this quintessential book all about dragons at a dragon school and the various lessons they undertake each year from learning to fly to blowing fire and capturing princesses, but it did feature heavily in my Brave Girls feature a week ago, so click the link to read more about it.

where did all the dragons go

Where Did All the Dragons Go? By Fay Robinson, illustrated by Victor Lee
This is like reading a lyrical poem with accompanying dreamy illustrations. It’s for older children and it’s not lighthearted and funny like Zog, but is a beautiful picture book, and one worth cherishing. When reading aloud, it’s wonderful to watch the faces of children as they hear the rhymes, savour the language and look at the impressive illustrations. Older children will appreciate the dark artwork of dragons swooping through the air, lit by the illuminated balls of treasure in their claws, and other artworks with dragons, wings outspread, lit from beneath as if flying above the sun. The vocabulary is stretching:
“Gentle dragons, young and old,
hoarding gemstones, guarding gold,
gathering in dragon crowds,
breathing fire, making clouds.”
Sadly, it appears to be out of print. I suggest borrowing from a library or seeking second hand through online retailers.

that pesky dragon

That Pesky Dragon by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Melanie Williamson
Lightening the tone once more, this is another picture book for younger readers. I chose this almost entirely for the page that shows the dragon with a tear in his eye. A female protagonist here, Izzy lives on a farm with lots of farm animals, and a dragon! Although over the next hill, its roars can be heard by everyone on the farm, and the adults deem it too dangerous to go near it. Not only that, but they blame the pesky dragon for the eggs being hard, the milk turning to yogurt and for burning all the wheat in the field. Izzy decides to be brave and go to see the dragon, and discovers that it is trapped:
“I’ve been shouting for help for days,” the dragon cried.
The illustrations are so tender and heart-warming, so bright and colourful, that no child can be scared or upset reading this book. It teaches that you don’t have to be afraid of something that is ‘other’, as the unfamiliar can always look scary until you know what it is. It also implies that it can be good to be brave. It’s a happy ending. Sadly not available everywhere, but you can buy it from online marketplaces or borrow from your local library.

there's a dragon downstairs

There’s a Dragon Downstairs by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Amanda Harvey
This too, I’ve written about before, as it exemplifies our fear of the dark and also, like That Pesky Dragon, our fears about what’s unknown or unfamiliar. Click here to read my review of it, in terms of books about the dark. I’ll also admit that it’s slightly cheating, because as you’ll discover – there’s really no dragon in this book at all!

paper bag princess
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko

A feminist tale about a smart princess who outwits a dragon and then decides that she won’t marry her prince because he wants an archetypal fairy tale princess, and she is certainly not one of those. In a fairy tale twist, an extremely powerful and dangerous dragon comes along and destroys the princess’s castle and captures the prince. It is left up to the princess to rescue him, but the dragon has burnt all her possessions so the only thing she can wear is a paper bag. She follows the dragon to his lair, outwits him and sets the prince free. The last page sees her skipping off into the sunset on her own, but happy. There are some faults with this text, but kudos must be given for a feminist tale published as long ago as 1980 and still in print. You can purchase it here or see the Amazon sidebar.

mirrorbelle and dragon pox

Princess Mirror-Belle and the Dragon Pox by Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks
Julia Donaldson’s mirror princess started life in chapter books, but has recently made the transition to picture books, which is fabulous because Lydia Monks’ drawings are exquisite, and the added sparkle on each page is quite irresistible. With Julia Donaldson you know you’re going to read quality text, even if it’s slightly longer here than in her more well-known picture books, and also isn’t in verse, but in simple prose. The story is about Ellen who has chicken pox, and her mirror princess, Princess Mirror-Belle who climbs out of her bathroom mirror, announces she has dragon pox and that she knows the cure. Before long the princess has the bathroom in completely disarray, but of course disappears back into the mirror before Ellen’s Mum discovers her. It’s a simple story, beautifully told and illustrated and will charm any child affected (or not) by the pox. And yes, I’ve cheated here – there’s no dragon. Just dragon pox. You can purchase it here or see the Amazon sidebar

george dragon fire station

George’s Dragon at the Fire Station by Claire Freedman and Russell Julian
My last dragon story is for younger readers (probably the youngest for whom I cater), but again is written by such a picture book talent, that it would be sad to miss her out. This series starts with George’s Dragon about a boy who has to convince his parents that a dragon is a viable pet, and now includes George’s Dragon Goes to School, and this latest addition published last year. An open day at a fire station should be perfect for a dragon, after all there’s a whole crew to extinguish any unwanted dragon fire, but it turns out George’s dragon can be quite a liability. He is clumsy and large, and gets in the way, until a real call to the fire station warrants a helping hand from a creature who can fly, and in steps George’s dragon. This is narrative prose, but with nice touches of typeface, such as larger letters, and nee naars and dings all over the place. Added to that, Russell Julian’s purple dragon has the friendliest features of all. You can purchase it here or see the Amazon sidebar

Just for fun, learn how to draw a dragon with children’s illustrator Emily Gravett here or how to make a dragon (out of paper!) with Lydia Monks here.

 

 

 

The Dark All Around Us

Many small children have a fear of the dark. This can be difficult to address because the dark is an abstract idea; the fear is of the unknown, which makes it hard to conjure in a picture book. However, I have found five books that I think do the job really well in different ways. I’ve listed them in a kind of youngest to oldest order (lots of quibble room here though).

can't you sleep little bear

Can’t you Sleep Little Bear by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Barbara Firth

Although not immediately apparent that this about a fear of the dark, Can’t you Sleep Little Bear displays a perfect juxtaposition of darkness and light. The book kicks off with a light-drenched illustration as the bears play in the snow in bright sunlight, but then soon retreat home for bed to the Bear Cave as the sun goes down. Immediately the illustrations move to the ‘dark’ part of the cave where Little Bear is trying (and failing) to sleep. During the course of the book, Big Bear fetches larger and larger lanterns for Little Bear in the hope of trying to disperse the “dark all around us”. There’s no magic resolution to the story, as it becomes apparent that tiredness overcomes the fear in the end, but it does try to illustrate that there is no real dark, as even outside in the dark, the moon and stars overcome it, and Little Bear ends up “warm and safe in Big Bear’s arms”. There is nothing remotely frightening in this book, no hidden shadows or shapes in the ‘darkness’, just a comforting glow of the adult space. In this way, it can comfort the smallest of children. (There’s even a touch of humour added for the impatient grown up reader).

can't you sleep little bear2

 

There’s a Dragon Downstairs by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Amanda Harvey
This book won various awards about a decade ago and tackles the darkness in a solid way by illuminating the dark’s distortion of everyday things into monstrous entities; the darkness makes the familiar appear fearsome. Even the pencil lines of the illustrations indicate the ephemeral shadiness of the darkness. There is much sympathy for our protagonist Sophie from her parents, who valiantly search the house for the dragon, although in the end it is Sophie who must fight her own demons! Of course, the end is beautifully reassuring (spoiler alert!) – the dragon is revealed to be none other than the friendly domestic cat. A great way to explore a child’s fear without stating the obvious.

 there's a dragon downstairs

The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, illustrated by Paul Howard
A beautiful picture book, which I read as a child as a chapter book – today it is published in both formats. The owl parents in this instance are ‘laissez-faire’ parents, sending the child owl ‘Plop’ to do some research on why it’s good to be a night owl! Plop interviews various humans (and a cat) about the dark to find out why they like it. Each character supplies Plop with a new adjective about the dark:
“The small boy said DARK IS EXCITING. The old lady said DARK IS KIND. The little girl said DARK IS NECESSARY. The man with the telescope said DARK IS WONDERFUL.”
Jill Tomlinson manages to convey Plop’s stubborn childlike qualities in his language;
“I still do not like it AT ALL”,
although he is persuaded in the end. The picture book, illustrated by Paul Howard, conveys the excitement of the fireworks and the magical quality of the night stars, as well providing the most exquisite owl drawings. A book that confronts the fear head on! I never tire of it.

owl who was afraid3owl who was afraid1

 

The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen

A more recent picture book that confronts the fear head on is The Dark. The pictures as much as the text in this book simulate the fear of the little boy Laszlo, who is seen only in rays of light, while the rest of the page stays in the dark. The dark is even personified here, given a voice halfway through the book, which itself is pretty frightening:
“The voice of the dark was as creaky as the roof of the house, and as smooth and cold as the windows, and even though the dark was right next to Laszlo, the voice seemed very far away.”
I’ve suggested this is for slightly older readers because although immensely powerful, during most of the book the illustrations are fairly threatening. Laszlo is a brave hero and ventures further and further into the dark, until the dark is finally explained by Snicket, in fact – explained in the same way as the little girl in The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark – as being necessary! The darkness is also generous in The Dark, giving Laszlo a lightbulb to explain how without the dark:
“you would never know if you needed a lightbulb”.
A tricky concept, adeptly handled.

Dark Lemony Snicket

Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett
This is not strictly about the dark, although there is a page about being alone or in the dark, but Emily Gravett’s book uses a different tool from the other books to conquer fears, which is perhaps worth mentioning here: art. Big Book of Fears sets out lots of things that may be frightening, from common childhood fears of dogs and getting lost, to fears that are slightly more obscure, such as fear of clocks, but each time the illustrator implores you to overcome your fears through use of art. Not such a bad idea, when for children, expressing emotions through pictures can be an illuminating task. The other undercurrent here for confronting and defeating fear is humour. The scared mouse taking us through the pages, delights parent and child alike as it recoils from ‘knives’ in a page that features newspaper cuttings on the ‘three blind mice and the farmer’s wife’. There are some excellent pull-outs here too – the page on heights features an exciting map of the Isle of Fright. A great book for starting a conversation about what’s scary and how fears can be confronted and conquered.

Little Mouse book of fears